Sandhill cranes overhead: A ride to Jasper-Pulaski

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Sandhill cranes pour into Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area by the thousands around sunset during the fall migration.Credit: Dale Bowman

MEDARYVILLE, Ind.–As I drove John Vukmirovich back to the Metra, he said, “The time-space continuum opens up and they are everywhere.”

For dozens of watchers of sandhill cranes, that moment came at sunset in mid-November. Thousands of sandhills dropped in, flying in mainly from the southeast at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. Even on a day with cold and winds strong enough for warnings, wave after wave of sandhills washed over us. The sound of them swept over us as emphatically as the sight of the big birds, gawky looking but graceful in fact.

Thanksgiving is the traditional peak for sandhills at Jasper-Pulaski. The FWA, southeast of Valparaiso, has been holding about 8,000 for several weeks. I highly recommend a visit to the Goose Pasture Viewing Area, beginning the hour before sunset, over the holiday weekend. Think of it as atonement for the excesses of the dinner table.

The sound of sandhills is a sticking point with us. Vukmirovich, a proud Chicago Serb, chided me several times for calling it croaking. He describes it as krooing. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in its allaboutbirds.org site puts it as “loud, rattling bugle calls;’’ but noted, “They also give moans, hisses, gooselike honks, and snoring sounds.’’

Watching sandhills by the thousands is a full sensory experience, sight and sound.

Vukmirovich spots sandhill cranes with as much ease as he drops a Sam Fathers reference.

That’s a good combination for me. I consider William Faulkner’s “The Bear’’ as The Great American Novella. Fathers is the tracker/woodsman in The Bear with layers of meaning, much like Vukmirovich, one of the best pure writers I know.

He has been watching the spring and fall migrations of sandhills over Chicago for years, divining meaning from it.

In other words, he was a perfect companion for a trek into Indiana to watch sandhills.

I picked up him up early afternoon at the University Park Metra and we wound our way to the NIPSCO plant near Wheatfield, Ind. A friend had recommended a perimeter road as the best viewing area. But we blanked in miles of intently watching for sign of sandhills feeding or dancing in the corn and bean fields.

Then, at the corner of 1350 north and 250 east, Vukmirovich spotted the first five floating into a field. I threw the flashers on and we jumped out. By the time we were done scanning the fields, our count was at a minimum of 500. That number pales by what may be seen at sunset at Jasper-Pulaski, so it was onward.

Sandhill cranes arrive overhead at the viewing area at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area.

Credit: Dale Bowman

Dozens of others had the same idea and were on the viewing deck. The best thing was seeing a bunch of young kids and college-age people, too.

Considering the wind that day, I was not expecting much. But the sandhills kept coming, lower and louder as the sun set.

“Think of all the people in their homes right now watching TV,” Vukmirovich said.

We had a better show.

As the darkness thickened, the sandhills stopped flying and quieted.

It was time.

As I drove, Vukmirovich dropped thoughts (partly because he knew I would have trouble taking notes and driving) about the “wisdom of the ancients,’’ a reason for watching sandhills; the wonder of Loren Eiseley, author of “The Invisible Pyramid;’’ and the time-space continuum.

Yes, all that.

For information and recommendation on the sandhills at Jasper-Pulaski, click here.

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The thousands of sandhill cranes in fall migrations draw dozens to watch daily at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area.

Credit: Dale Bowman


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